Iván Vitányi on Hungary past and present

Who is Iván Vitányi, one might ask? I can assure you he is worth getting to know, and I suggest that anyone who can read Hungarian put him on the to-do list. Vitányi is eighty-two years old and still going strong. Since 1995 he has published eight volumes: about politics (Rendszerváltástól kormányváltásig, 1995), about culture (A magyar társadalom kultúrális állapota, 1999), and about social democracy (for example, A szociáldemokrácia jövőképe, 1997). I have read several of his books, including Mérleg: Itt és most a szociáldemokráciáról, 2000).

A few weeks ago I read a fascinating interview with him in which he expressed his belief that the "real change of regime" began only with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s reforms; at last Gyurcsány had to guts to get rid of the economic and social baggage of state socialism.

In today’s Népszava he gave another lengthy interview in which the main theme is again the reforms and their importance. The editors picked a sentence out of this lengthy interview which they used as the title of the piece: "To become a modern society the reforms must succeed."

A quick biography before returning to substantive issues. Vitányi is considered to be a sociologist, although he studied philosophy with György Lukács in 1949-50. He also knows quite a bit about music as well, especially folk music. He came from a gentry family and, if I recall properly, he is somehow related to Miklós Horthy, the governor of Hungary between the two world wars. However, he certainly didn’t follow the thinking and lifestyle of his class. He became a communist and took part in the rather feeble Hungarian resistance movement against the Germans and their Hungarian allies. He was captured by the Gestapo and the Hungarian Arrowcross and spent time in jail. When he was freed, he joined the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP until 1948 and MDP between 1948 and 1956). He got involved with the people around Imre Nagy and took part in the 1956 revolution. Like so many other intellectuals, after a few hard years, he began to be able to publish and hold important positions in the cultural sphere. In 1972 he joined the MSZMP; in 1989 he was among the founding members of the new MSZP, the current socialist/social democratic party of Hungary. He has been a member of parliament since 1994.

In today’s interview Vitányi spends a great deal of time on "our troubled relation with the idea of nation." He recalls that although "our best thinkers, Sándor Petőfi [mid-nineteenth century poet], Attila József [perhaps the best Hungarian poet, who died in 1937], István Bibó [first-rate political thinker, died in 1979], and Béla Bartók, could assimilate the modern with the traditional," the stronger impulse is "that everything that is Hungarian is inherently good and everything foreign is inherently bad. If capitalism is foreign to Hungarian thinking, then capitalism is inherently bad (and not only the socialists claimed that it was bad, let me add). If the idea of a shopping center is foreign to us, then it is harmful to Hungarians. And I could continue." According to Vitányi this kind of thinking leads some people to always blame someone else for the failures of the country and its people. "These people don’t want to take responsibility for their own past, present and future…. For all the ills of Hungarian society someone else is responsible. Hungarians are being persecuted. The solution is very simple: the foreigners must be chased away. These people’s targets are the Jews, the Romanians, the Slovaks, Western Europe, the United States, the business competitors, those who think differently, or their political rivals…. They are always looking for an enemy, they have developed a culture of constant complaints, as Bibó said ‘we like to wave our bloody shirt.’ This shows a very dangerous lack of self-knowledge. …. I consider this the biggest obstacle of a healthy social development."

I had hardly finished reading this interview when I heard a discussion in Napkelte [Sunrise] with Krisztina Morvai, a more and more belligerent and shrill spokeswoman of the right. Morvai’s career can’t be recounted here. She would deserve a separate piece. But perhaps one ought to mention that she is the head of a so-called independent civic association that devotes itself to the defense of the persecuted. She made herself famous or infamous (depending on your point of view) by managing to make victims of the extremist mob that attacked the police. I must say this was quite a feat.

Well, Morvai’s latest attack is against Auchan, the French-owned hypermarket chain. As it turns out, Ms. Morvai went shopping but didn’t buy anything. As she left the store, she was stopped at the door and was asked her open her handbag. Oh dear! According to her, the foreign company would dare to act this way only in Hungary because the French consider Hungary a colony where they can do anything with the natives. They would never dare to do the same in France. So she is asking people to boycott all foreign companies because they exploit Hungarian workers and sell junk to the less than demanding Hungarian buying public. Moreover, "they take their profit outside of the country." She announced: "we will rise against the foreign exploiters who think that the Hungarians are nothing else but servants." She suggested that Auchan and the others "can pack up and go."  Nothing could alter her line of reasoning. It didn’t matter that the spokesman for Auchan announced that so far the company has not turned a profit on its Hungarian investment, so no profits have left Hungary. Nor did it matter that the company employs several thousand Hungarians, a plus for the Hungarian economy. As for shoplifting, apparently the large chains lose about 100 billion forints a year to shoplifting, so it is not surprising that they do spot checks. (I assume they don’t have the American-style tags that set off alarms as a customer leaves the store with merchandise from which the tag has not been removed.)

Poor Vitányi, poor Gyurcsány! How can they fight against Krisztina Morvais and this antiquated thinking? Basically, they don’t have to. They just have to keep to their game plan and Hungary will benefit. The reforms will succeed.